Long COVID: Changes in Taste and Smell

Changes in Taste and Smell

Changes (or loss of) taste and smell are very common symptoms of long COVID. They impact how well you are able to detect flavors. When you eat, your smell and taste senses work together to create the flavor of food. 

Although taste and smell are closely related, you may not lose both. Some people only lose their sense of smell, but can still taste. The opposite is also true.

With long COVID (as well as with initial COVID infection in some people) you may experience different food smells and tastes. Foods may have little taste (bland) or they may taste unusually salty, sweet, or metallic). The changes often affect your appetite, desire for certain foods, and overall nutrition. 

Some people with long COVID develop parosmia - when they sense normal-smelling foods as unpleasant or even disgusting. Parosmia doesn’t affect taste - you can still tell the difference between saltiness, sweetness, etc. As with other changes in taste and smell, it does influence your ability to eat and enjoy food.

Research of people with long COVID parosmia identified coffee, meat, egg, garlic, fried food, and onion as being the most frequently distorted foods. They have been described as chemical, rotten, bitter, or burnt.

Foods less likely to have distorted aromas include honey, grapefruit, melon, raw nuts, peaches, carrots, and celery, although this varies from person to person.

Coping with Change/Loss of Taste and Smell

General Suggestions

Consider the following:

  • Stick with foods that taste good to you. If something doesn’t taste good, it might change in a few days or so. 

  • Try a variety of flavors and textures (e.g crunchy, creamy, crispy, etc)

  • Sugar-free gum or mints may lessen any unpleasant taste that remains

  • Cold or room temperature foods may taste better than hot foods

  • To enhance the flavor of food, try adding olive oil (for healthy fat), lemon juice (for a more acidic taste), maple syrup (for more sweetness), or a dash of sea salt (for saltiness/flavor)

Specific Types of Taste Changes

If foods don’t taste right,  try the following:

Too Sweet 

  • Add sour flavors, like lemon juice or vinegar

  • Use nutmeg, cinnamon, or cocoa powder in puddings, desserts, or smoothies

  • Add a dash of sea salt

  • Dilute sweetened drinks with water, ice, soda water, milk, or non-dairy alternatives

Too Salty

  • Use herbs and spices (e.g. rosemary, thyme, dill, black/white pepper, paprika, basil, etc.) instead of salt

  • Avoid processed and packaged foods with a lot of salt (e.g. salad dressing, deli meats/cold cuts, cheeses, breads, snacks, etc.)

  • Rinse canned food in water or soak overnight to lower the salt content

  • Try to find low sodium versions of foods (cheeses, breads, popcorn, etc.)

Too Bitter

  • Try room temperature or cold foods 

  • Add some salt, olive oil, or balsamic vinegar to cooked vegetables

  • Add pesto to pasta

  • Try including mild-tasting food like pudding, cooked cereal, custard, or milk in your diet

  • Marinate meat in citrus juices, wine, or vinegar

Too Bland

Try increasing the flavor by adding:

  • Fresh onion and garlic

  • Hot pepper

  • Herbs and spices

  • Mustard

  • Lemon juice

  • Pesto

  • Salsa

  • Sun-dried tomatoes

  • Pickles

  • Olives, olive spread

  • Nuts

  • Sharp cheeses

  • Maple syrup

  • Honey

  • Dark chocolate 

  • Dried fruit

Metallic

  • Choose fresh or frozen produce instead of canned foods

  • Add marinades such as pineapple juice, Italian dressing, lemon juice, wine, teriyaki, or soy sauce

  • Use plastic instead of metallic utensils

  • Use glass cookware and bakeware instead of metal

  • If beef tastes bitter:

    • Eat it cold or at room temperature

    • Have other proteins such as chicken, fish, mild cheeses, eggs, dairy products, cooked beans, nuts, or tofu

    • If you have leftover beef, mix it into a casserole or stew 

Hygiene

Effective mouth care and dry mouth treatments may help with taste issues.

Mouth Care

  • Brush your teeth and tongue with a soft toothbrush before and after each meal. Wait 10-15 minutes after you brush your teeth before you eat

  • Floss your teeth at least 1-2 times a day

  • Rinse your mouth. Try 1/4 tsp (1.5 g) of baking soda dissolved in 1 cup (240 mL) of room-temperature water. Swish before and after meals and snacks. 

  • Sip on carbonated water to lessen unpleasant tastes

Dry Mouth

A dry mouth can decrease the flavor of food. Make sure you are getting enough fluids. Aim for a total of about 8 cups (1920 mL) throughout the day. The following may also help lessen a dry mouth.

  • Stay away from alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine (e.g. coffee, tea, sodas)

  • Use alcohol-free mouthwash

  • Try a humidifier while you sleep

  • Snack on frozen fruit (e.g. berries, grapes, peaches, pineapples, etc.), gelatin (Jelloʀ) and frozen fruit pops (Popsiclesʀ) 

  • Soft moist foods are often better tolerated (e.g scrambled eggs, oatmeal, soups, yogurt, cottage cheese, ricotta cheese, mashed avocado, casseroles, etc.)

  • Chewing sugar-free gum or sucking on ice chips increases saliva

  • When eating, alternate between liquids and solids - i.e. take a few bites then a few sips, etc.

  • Drizzle olive oil, avocado, or coconut oil on foods

Safety

The changes/loss of taste and smell may cause possible safety issues. For example, you may have an increased risk of eating spoiled food or smelling fire-related smoke or gas.

Some suggestions to stay safe include the following:

Spoiled Food

  • Everyone handling food should wash their hands

  • Look for visible signs that food is spoiled (e.g. change in color, mold, etc.)

  • Check expiration dates

  • Throw refrigerated leftovers away within 3 to 4 days

  • Keep raw meat, poultry, and fish away from other foods

  • Cook foods according to instructions

  • Store foods correctly. Mark packages or containers with dates

Smoke and Gas

  • Ask friends and family, including children, to be alert to smoke and gas smells.

  • Use smoke alarms. Make sure they’re currently working and check them at least once a month. Replace the batteries at least every 6 to 12 months.

  • Consider a device that detects gas leaks. 

For More Information

Food Safety.gov (2022). Your Gateway to Food Safety Information accessed https://www.foodsafety.gov/ on 1-23-2022.

U.S. Fire Administration (20223). Smoke Alarm Outreach Materials accessed https://www.usfa.fema.gov/prevention/outreach/smoke_alarms.html on 1-23-2022.